On the occasion of the Autobiography of a Yogi’s 50th anniversary in 1996, several of Paramahansa Yogananda’s close disciples who were still with us shared their reminiscences of the day the books arrived and the impact it had on their lives. They were among the first to experience the divine wisdom, love, and transforming vision of life emanating from its pages — pages that since then have changed the lives of millions.
The Guru told us: “When I have left this world, this book will change the lives of millions. It will be my messenger when I am gone.”
The writing of Autobiography of a Yogi was a project that took many years of Paramahansaji’s time to complete. When I came to Mt. Washington in 1931, he had already begun work on it. Once when I was in his study attending to some secretarial duties for him I was privileged to see one of the first chapters he wrote — it was about “The Tiger Swami.” Gurudeva asked me to save it because it would be going into a book.
However, the greatest portion of his autobiography was composed during the period 1937–45. Paramahansaji had so many responsibilities and commitments, he was not able to work on his book every day; but in general, he devoted the evenings to it, as well as whatever other free time he was able to put his mind on it.
A small group of us — Ananda Mata (below), Shraddha Mata, and myself — were around him much of that time, helping to type the manuscript. After each part was typed, Gurudeva would give it to Tara Mata, who served as his editor.
One day, while working on his autobiography, the Guru told us: “When I have left this world, this book will change the lives of millions. It will be my messenger when I am gone.”
When the manuscript was finished, Tara Mata went to New York to find a publisher for it. Paramahansaji had great respect for her knowledge and for her editorial abilities, and often praised her publicly. He said: “What [she] has done for this book I cannot begin to describe. Before she was to go to New York she fell violently ill. She left for New York just the same. But for her, the book would never have gone through.”
Gurudeva’s reaction to the completion of the book was joy that no words can express. He inscribed my copy, as he did for many of the other devotees who were here in the ashrams. When I received it, I knew, having helped to type the manuscript, that this was an immortal book — one that for the first time revealed hidden truths which had never before been presented in such a clear and inspirational way. No other author has approached Guruji’s explanation of miracles, reincarnation, karma, the afterlife, and the other wonderful spiritual truths contained in its pages.
What would be his reaction to the book’s renown today? He would be humbly touched that Autobiography of a Yogi has reached into all corners of the earth to people of every culture, race, religion, and age, and that it has been received with tremendous acclaim and enthusiasm throughout these fifty years. Though Guruji never dwelt on his own importance, he certainly did believe in the great value of what he wrote — because he knew he was writing Truth.
To our Laurie Pratt
“God and the Gurus ever bless you for your valiant & loving part in bringing this book out. P.Y.”
“At last the sacred fragrance of God, of my gurus and the masters have come out through the secret doors of my soul — after unending hazards and ceaseless efforts of Laurie Pratt and other disciples. All faggots of difficulties are burning in the everlasting flame of joy.”
“Autobiography of a Yogi was on its way to a divine destiny, ultimately to carry the Guru’s blessings and love for God to millions of seeking souls.”
One evening in the Encinitas hermitage, late in 1946, we younger devotees were busily engaged with our kitchen duties when Gurudeva came through the door. All activity stopped and our attention was fully concentrated on his broad smile and an even more beautiful than usual twinkle in his eyes. His hand was behind his back, concealing “something.” He called for a few others to come and had us line up in front of him. Then he displayed before us the hidden treasure — an advance copy of his book, Autobiography of a Yogi.
Midst “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” we could scarcely express our joy to behold at last the long-awaited account of his life among the great saints and sages of India — with which he had so often enthralled us during precious hours in his company. He opened to a few pages, saving for last the illustration of Mahavatar Babaji. Almost breathlessly we offered our reverence and absorbed the blessing we felt to be among the first to glimpse the likeness of our Param-Param-Paramguru.
In early December, we were all summoned to Mt. Washington to participate in the arrival of parcels of books from the publisher, and in preparing them for posting to the many eager devotees — hundreds of back orders. Weeks ahead of time when any of us had free moments we were engaged in typing address labels on one of our old manual typewriters. Huge tables (flat boards on sawhorses) were set up in the office, ready for assembly-line wrapping of each individual book in brown mailing paper off a huge roll, hand-cutting it to just the right size, affixing labels and postage stamps moistened first from wet sponges. No automation or mailing machines in those days! But oh what joy to participate in this momentous event in Self-Realization Fellowship history. The world would know our blessed Master through this sublime ambassador.
In the third-floor sitting room, Gurudeva sat at a desk for hours without a break, autographing every book. The books were removed from the publisher’s shipping cartons, opened, and placed before him in a steady stream as he signed each one — emptying one fountain pen while another was being refilled.
It was late when he summoned me to come upstairs. He was still autographing books. The senior disciples urged him to take some rest, but he refused even to consider it until every book in that shipment was signed with his blessings. He had the most beatific expression on his face, as though a very real part of himself and his love for God were going out to all the world in those printed pages, and it should not be withheld one extra moment.
It was with inexpressible joy that we sat at his feet to meditate in the wee hours of the morning. The Master had handed each of us our personal copy of this treasure, and all other copies had been wrapped for mailing in the morning or packed for sending to his temples in Hollywood and San Diego. Autobiography of a Yogi was on its way to a divine destiny, ultimately to carry the Guru’s blessings and love for God to millions of seeking souls.
“I remember there were times when he might dictate all night long, and other occasions when it would continue for the entire day or even longer.”
There were just a few of us living in the Encinitas Hermitage when Paramahansaji was writing Autobiography of a Yogi, a project that took him a number of years to complete. I was living there for part of that time.
Guruji did most of the writing of that book in his study at the Hermitage. I remember there were times when he might dictate all night long, and other occasions when it would continue for the entire day or even longer. I was not involved with the secretarial duties like Daya Ma and Ananda Ma, who would sometimes take down his words in shorthand and at other times use the typewriter. My responsibility was mostly cooking their meals so that they could work uninterruptedly!
When Autobiography of a Yogi arrived from the publisher, there was great jubilation. Right away Guruji wanted us to send out his book to all those who had placed advance orders! So after the initial celebration, we were very busy filling the big backlog of orders that had accumulated. Sister Shila and I wrapped many copies, stamped the packages, and got them all ready. Then we brought the car around, opening the trunk and all of the doors. When the car had been completely filled, we drove the parcels of books down to the main post office in Los Angeles. We were delighted: At last Autobiography of a Yogi was going to be available to people everywhere!
“I knew in my heart that I had found what I wanted, and made up my mind to study the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda and find God.”
I was in my early teens when I spent a summer vacation with an aunt and uncle in the suburbs of Winterthur, one of the larger cities in Switzerland. My uncle was a musician, a member of a symphony orchestra. He too was on vacation, which he spent working in his large garden. I helped him. Since they didn’t have any children, my uncle took a great interest in me, and during the garden work there were long “talking sessions.” My uncle, I found, was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy, and I listened with rapt attention to his discourses on karma, reincarnation, the astral and causal planes, and particularly on saints — masters who had attained illumination.
He told me of Buddha and how he had reached this blessed state, and other saints, which kindled in me a deep desire to follow their example. I remember how I used to walk around repeating inwardly again and again: illumination, illumination. Even though I didn’t understand the full meaning of the word, of course, I knew that it was something far greater than what ordinary man had, no matter how accomplished he might be in his material or artistic career. I asked my uncle how one could achieve that state, but the only thing he could say was that one has to meditate. But how, he didn’t know. He said that one has to have a guru who could teach everything. When I expressed my great desire to meet one, he just shook his head and smiled. “My poor boy, there are no gurus in Switzerland!”
So I began to pray for a guru. My yearning for a master was so great that, after I had returned to my hometown, I used to go to the train station, waiting for hours, in the hope that “he” would come. But nothing happened.
After I finished my schooling, I worked in my father’s business for two frustrating years. By then, I had given up my interest in Hindu philosophy, since it seemed hopeless that I could find a guru. I embarked on a career in art, and after three years I was invited to go to the United States to study with Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect.
During my first week in America, I visited an uncle who had emigrated to this country in the 1920s. During a conversation he mentioned Hindu philosophy. When I told him that I had been interested in this subject years earlier, his face lit up and he took me to his private study and showed me Autobiography of a Yogi. Pointing to Paramahansa Yogananda’s picture on the cover, he asked: “Have you ever heard of him?” When I said no, he replied, “Greatest man I ever saw. He is a true master!”
“You have seen him?” I cried in utter surprise. “Where is he — not in America!?”
“Yes, he lives in Los Angeles.” Then he told me how he had attended a series of lectures and classes given by Paramahansaji soon after he had come to this country. To think of it, all these years when I had been longing for a guru, my uncle had known a master and his teachings!
I hungrily read the book. That was the first miracle. I was so fascinated that I didn’t even notice that this in itself was a miracle — I didn’t know enough English to read a book in that language. Frank Lloyd Wright too had written an autobiography, but I had tried in vain to read the first couple of pages. It took me a whole additional year of learning English before I was able to read that book. Yet I had been able to read Autobiography of a Yogi from cover to cover.
I knew in my heart that I had found what I wanted, and made up my mind to study the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda and find God.
It was some months later, after I had learned more English, that I was able to make a trip to Los Angeles, hoping to see the Master. As I entered the grounds of the Mother Centre, I felt an overwhelming peace, like nothing I had ever experienced anywhere before. I knew I stood on holy ground.
Sunday morning I attended Paramahansaji’s morning service at the Hollywood Temple. It was the first time I would see him face to face. It was an unforgettable experience. After the service, the Master sat on a chair and most of the congregation went up to greet him. I can’t express in words how I felt as I stood in line. Finally when I stood before him, he took my hand in his and I looked into those deep luminous tender eyes. No word was spoken. But I felt an indescribable joy coming into me through his hand and eyes.
I left the temple and walked in a daze along Sunset Boulevard. I was so intoxicated with joy that I couldn’t walk straight. I tottered like a drunkard. Not only that, but I couldn’t contain my joy within, and kept laughing out loud. People on the sidewalk turned and stared; and those walking toward me moved off to the side, shaking their heads in disgust over what they assumed was public drunkenness on Sunday morning. I didn’t care. I had never been so happy in my life.
Not long after this experience, I entered the Self-Realization Fellowship ashram as a monk.
Spellbound, he finished the entire book in one sitting. Recognising that the author had spiritual insight beyond that of anyone he had ever encountered Swami Premamoy decided to write to Paramahansa Yogananda.
A monastic disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda for more than thirty-five years, Self-Realization Fellowship minister Swami Premamoy was responsible for the spiritual training of young monks of the Order until his passing in 1990. To them he recounted this story.
Swami Premamoy was born in Slovenia. Because of his family connections with royalty and others of influence, after the Communist takeover of his native land at the end of World War II he was forced to flee. In 1950, the U.S. Department of State invited him to immigrate to America.
Just before sailing to New York in the fall of 1950, Swami Premamoy was given a farewell gift by an old friend of the family, Evelina Glanzmann. The present’s shape led him to assume it was a box of candy, and on board the ship he opened it to share with fellow passengers. To his surprise, the package was not candy, but a book — Autobiography of a Yogi.
Even though touched by the gift, Premamoyji did not immediately feel inclined to read it. Though he had been a voracious reader when younger, those days were over (he later said that he had read more books before the age of fifteen than he read for the entire rest of his life). Also, he was very familiar with Eastern philosophy, having fallen in love with the Bhagavad Gita when a teenager, and memorizing most of it. Now, seeing the subject matter of this gift book, his first reaction was, “I’m not going to read this — I don’t want to get hooked!”
In America, he became involved in various business undertakings, and was eventually offered a position as personal assistant to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations. (He declined the position before coming to California.) Months went by — and the Autobiography remained on the shelf, unread, at Swami Premamoy’s home in New York. In the meantime, Mrs. Glanzmann (who was the translator of the Italian edition of the Autobiography) had been asking her friend’s opinion of the book. Still Swami Premamoy did not venture into its pages. Finally Mrs. Glanzmann wrote words to the effect: “Say you like it or say you don’t; but say something!” In a pensive mood — it happened to be his birthday, March 6, and he was pondering what to do with his life — he picked up the book and started to read.
Spellbound, he finished the entire book in one sitting. Recognising that the author had spiritual insight beyond that of anyone he had ever encountered, Swami Premamoy decided to write to Paramahansa Yogananda.
Little did Swami Premamoy know that as he mailed the letter, the Guru was living the last day of his earthly life.
Swami Premamoy learned of the Guru’s passing some time later, when Sri Daya Mata replied to his letter. Several months passed; Swami Premamoy was unable to get the thought of the book and its author out of his mind, and that summer he decided to drive to Los Angeles to learn more about Paramahansaji’s teachings. As he walked onto the grounds of Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters for the first time, he was immediately approached by a smiling stranger. With a radiant smile, the man affectionately embraced him as if he were an old friend — long expected and most welcome. No words were exchanged, and it was only later that Swami Premamoy was formally introduced to his new “old friend” — Sri Sri Rajarsi Janakananda, president of the society!
Thus, the book that Paramahansaji spoke of as his “ambassador” performed its magic on one more soul — for from that day on, the course of Swami Premamoy’s life was set.
“I read it at night and [my mother] read it while I was at work. “Reading” is perhaps inadequate to describe the way we engrossed ourselves in the experience of entering the world of Truth. The origin of life, discipleship, the dispensation of Kriya Yoga — all were made clear in Autobiography of a Yogi.”
It was 1952, and I was employed as secretary to the assistant manager at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles: a fascinating job in an elite setting where I met a number of world-renowned personalities. But little did I know the impact upon my life the sound of one name would make when spoken in my ear.
On March 6, the secretary of a motion picture producer called the hotel and asked that a message be delivered to Paramahansa Yogananda. The moment I heard that name, a huge “gong-bell” rang in my chest; my head swam, joy welled up in my heart and mind, and I couldn’t even walk straight as I made my way to the reservations desk to arrange for the message delivery. I was told that no one of that name was registered at the hotel, although the Indian Ambassador and his retinue were currently in residence. All the way back to my office the name kept revolving in my consciousness and I became more and more filled with love and joy. After a short time the motion picture producer called and asked, “What name did my secretary give you?” I told him “Paramahansa Yogananda” and he exclaimed, “That’s what I thought I heard him say! That’s not the name I gave him. He doesn’t know why he said that!”
The rest of that day I remained in a strange state of inner awareness and experienced a deep sense of connectedness to that name. Then came March 7, the fateful day of Paramahansa Yogananda’s mahasamadhi. I read about it in the paper and felt that I had lost my best friend. It was devastating! It seemed my life was suddenly over. I kept thinking, I’ve missed him! I’ve waited all my life for him and I missed him! But I didn’t really know what I meant because I wasn’t looking for a teacher or a path. Even so, in the depths of my consciousness I knew it to be true, that I had missed the most important person in my existence.
From that moment on my well-ordered, rather glamorous life no longer suited me. I abruptly cancelled important plans, stopped seeing people I knew and started seeking through books. It never occurred to me to see if Paramahansa Yogananda had ever written a book; I simply felt that he was gone and I had missed him. After reading four metaphysically oriented volumes which did not satisfy the depth of my need, I was again searching through the same row of books in the Hollywood Public Library with my mother, who had caught some of the fire that was burning within me. After almost passing the first section, which I felt I had already thoroughly perused, a book fell off the top shelf, hit me on the head, and bounced onto the floor. My mother picked it up and gasped as she turned it toward me — Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. There before me was the name my heart was reaching for, and the face with eyes that penetrated to the soul!
I read it at night and she read it while I was at work. “Reading” is perhaps inadequate to describe the way we engrossed ourselves in the experience of entering the world of Truth. The origin of life, discipleship, the dispensation of Kriya Yoga — all were made clear in Autobiography of a Yogi.
We attended a service at the Hollywood Temple, which overwhelmed me with the same “presence” that had been so dynamic the morning I first heard the Guru’s name spoken on the telephone. After the service Meera Mata was very gracious in receiving us and after a few moments suggested that I go to Mt. Washington Mother Centre and meet her daughter, Mrinalini Mata. We did go and learned about the monastic order, and I was “captured” for the third time — first by Paramahansa Yogananda, second by Autobiography of a Yogi, and now, by the ideal of a life of renunciation devoted to God alone.
After recounting the story about the effect upon me of hearing Paramahansaji’s name on March 6, I learned he had been at the hotel on that morning attending a breakfast for the Ambassador from India, His Excellency Binay R. Sen. That breakfast took place in the room next to my office. The Master was sitting just on the other side of the wall from my desk at the time I received the call and heard his name.
The Guru is calling all of “his own” through his tremendous autobiography. Some of us just take a little too long to respond and have to be hit over the head, as did I! But how blessed is each one of the millions who hears his “voice” and answers his clarion call.